May 11, 1933
Neat strips of sheath paper carefully blanketed from public view yesterday Diego Rivera's uncompleted fresco, with its head of Nicolai Lenin, in the great hall of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center.
Rising high and broad above scurrying workmen at the very entrance of the main unit of the center, the covered wall symbolized the deadlock that continued between the Rockefeller interests and the Mexican mural painter.
Interrupted suddenly Tuesday night as he was at work on the scaffold, paid in full and told that his conception of the fresco was unsuitable, the artist broke his silence yesterday to charge that his art was being "assassinated".
Preservation of Work Planned
Meanwhile it was intimated that the Rockefeller interests were determined that the work of the acknowledged master mural painter should not be destroyed. Several suggestions were said to be under consideration to prevent mutilation of the uncompleted work. One was for placing another mural, painted on canvas, over the Rivera fresco, which is painted on the plaster. Another was for removal of the fresco, plaster and all, for its preservation elsewhere.
Spokesmen for Rockefeller Center said the suddenness with which the Mexican artist was stopped in his work would necessitate a period of consideration before any decision was reached on care of the Rivera work and plans for some new art work to occupy its place. Raymond M. Hood, one of the architects for the center, said, however, that he felt certain the disputed fresco would receive "very careful handling".
The painter, whose subject matter and treatment in other murals for public buildings have provoked numerous disputes on the ground that they set forth ideas too radical for general popular view in what followers of Rivera would call "capitalistic structures", spent a turbulent day giving interviews expressing his indignation and consulting with his attorney, Philip Wittenberg.
It was evident that he was not fully decided on his own course and it was asserted by friends that although he had received his full $21,000 payment, he was more concerned about completing the fresco than anything else. His attorney said an injuction would be sought if there was any move to destroy the work.
Radical groups seized upon the conflict to issue statements condemning the halting of work as comparable with "the vicious deeds of Hitler".
Artist Refuses to Compromise
"I refuse to compromise", said Rivera. "I will not change my mural even if I lose in the courts. It is a question of the right of the artist to complete his work and have it viewed".
No word came from the Rockefeller family. Nelson Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose letter to the painter, regretfully indicating that a depiction of Lenin as the great leader of mankind was not a suitable decoration for the walls of a public building, made no further statement.
Speaking partly in English and partly through an interpreter, Rivera set forth his views in detail. His fresco, he insisted, was not Communist propaganda, but the propaganda of the artist for his ideas. The official Communist group, he explained, had criticized both the fresco and himself for his work in collaboration with the Rockefellers.
The Rockefellers and their representatives, he declared, knew that he was going to place the figure of a "leader" in the fresco and he asserted that in his opinion Lenin was "the most modern leader in the world".
Rivera Sees Moral Issue
"It is not a legal question," he said. "It is a moral question. They have violated two fundamental elementary rights, the right of the artist to create, to express himself, and the right to receive the judgment of the world, of posterity.
"They have no right, this little group of commercially minded people, to assassinate my work and that of my colleagues, and if they veil it, cover it with tar paper as they have done, that is as much an assassination as
its complete destruction would be."
"My case is more important than a legal quarrel. It involves a moral issue, an issue of human rights, the right to create and the right to express truths as I see truths. They accepted my sketches, knew of my plan and had full knowledge of the ideas I was to develop. They knew of my personal character and ideals. They know I am working for myself and that I consider myself one of the working class. And they knew that I desired to portray existent life, not life as they would wish it to be portrayed.
The painter said he expected "intellectuals" to rally to his side "to keep the Rockefellers from assassinating my work". Both he and his wife expressed the opinion that members of the Rockefeller family, who had been friendly to them, would regret the stoppage of his work.
Mr. Wittenberg suggested it would be difficult to remove the Rivera mural from its place in the great hall. The wall, he said, was made specially for it, with steel beams to prevent cracks, two layers of brown plaster, one of white plaster and a layer of crushed marble. The pigments, he said, worked gradually through all four layers.
Work went on in the RCA building through the day and the curtain that had been placed across the entrance to hide the work was removed when the fresco itself was covered. Small details of patrolmen were in evidence around the big building, but there were no reports of trouble such as that which developed Tuesday night when Rivera sympathizers paraded in protest and a street row broke out.
Last night Rivera, through an interpreter, delivered a protest against the action of the Nazi government in Germany in burning proscribed books. He spoke at a dinner at the Park Crescent Hotel, Riverside Drive and Eighty-seventh Street, under the auspices of the Menorah Writers and Artists Committee.
"The Nazi government, in burning Karl Marx's books", he said, "has confirmed Marxism. According to Marxism theory, if society does not accept socialism there is no alternative but barbarism. What is being done in Germany today confirms that theory".
The painter dwelt on the role of the artist in society in general terms and said he was "like the iceman or delivery boy, and sometimes like the engineer or the expert electrician". He opposed the idea of the artist as apart from the social group and contended that the idea of "art for art's sake" was fostered to "drug" the public by persons profiting by the present system.
Move to Curb Foreign Artists
During the last few weeks, while Rivera was at work on his frescoes in Rockefeller Center and Jose Maria Sert, the Spanish artist, was placing his mural paintings in the same structure, conservative American artists have been forming an organization with the object of curbing the activities of foreign artists in this country and advancing the cause of American art.
The dismissal of Rivera brought forth the first announcement from this group, which is "designed to function solely for the purpose of publicly coping with the existing foreign evils and abuses threatening American art".
The association is to be known as the Advance American Art Commission. The governing board is composed of De Witt Lockman, George Elmer Browne, Leopold Seyffert, Dean Cornwell, Louis Betts, Wayman Adams, Ulrick Ellerhusen, Jes Schlaikjer, Sidney Dickinson, Eugene Savage, Robert Aitken and John Taylor Arms. This group represents the conservative wing of American art as opposed to the so-called modern groups.
Plans are to be revealed and a campaign started at a meeting at the Hotel Roosevelt next Thursday evening, to which some 400 artists have been invited.
George Elmer Browne, president of the Allied Artists of America, expressed the opinion that the "forming of the Advance American Art Commission is the sounding of the death knell for all existing beliefs of the pseudo-superiority of foreign artists. It is disgraceful the way American painters and sculptors are belittled".
Other Artists Debate Issue
Other artists expressed varying views about the dismissal of Rivera. A group of artists and writers will meet tonight in the studio of Suzanne La Follette, 22 East Tenth Street, to discuss the situation.
Harry Watrous, newly elected president of the National Academy of Design, said "it does not seem to me suitable to put the picture of Lenin in such a composition when 99 per cent of the people of this country do not believe in his principles."
John Sloan, president of the Society of Independent Artists, which first showed Rivera's work here some ten years ago, said he could not overestimate the importance to this country of having Rivera's work here.
"In my opinion, Rivera is probably the greatest living mural painter --probably the greatest for several centuries--in the direct line of descent from the old masters".
Alon Bement, director of the National Alliance of Art and Industry, who saw the Rivera paintings Tuesday afternoon, said he was disappointed that "so great an artist as Rivera should have been willing to relinquish his fine standing as a mural painter and condescend to become a mere propagandist".